As health concerns regarding the fasting activists who are taking part in Anna Hazare’s fight against corruption in India mount, questions are being raised as to the validity of this form of protest.
People supporting the cause argue that while fasting does bring a sense of immediacy to the issue, it also poses a health risk and activists should end the fast in order to continue their overall protest.
With the International Day of Peace happening next month and the Universal Peace Day just days away, perhaps the time is ripe to focus on one of the most powerful tools India has used to instigate social change: the peaceful protest, orchestrated by a populace who is at times willing to go to extremes to boldly make a statement without resorting to violence.
No discussion about peaceful protests comes without mentioning the grand-daddy of non-violent resistance, Mahatma Gandhi. Taking his lead from Ram Singh (whose boycotting actions led to the non-violent and civil disobendience movement in Punjab in 1872), Gandhi coupled seemingly “simple” actions, such as the 1930 salt march where Gandhi trekked for 24 days to get his own salt as a means of avoiding paying British tax on salt, with a mandate that centered around the power of non-violent courses of action. His philosophy has become the blueprint for peaceful protests, inspiring everyone from Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela to instigate change.
Gandhi’s constant dismissal of violent protest was as audacious as it gets, peacefully lobbying for India’s independence from Britain during a time when the world was conditioned to retaliate with war.
Citizens far and wide exercise their democratic right to protest the status quo, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. People regularly turn out to voice opinions and concerns over planned nuclear power plant sites and recently, great emphasis has been placed on amending the anti-corruption systems in India. The group behind Hazare’s protest, India Against Corruption, has used people power to call on the government to reassess the country’s anti-corruption systems which have been under public scrutiny ever since two damning reports about corruption of the management of the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games and the licensing of phones were published, garnering support from all corners of India and even engaging some of the more apathetic citizens.
The campaign really took flight on April 5 2011, when Hazare began what would become a twelve day hunger strike in protest. Hazare has consistently called for Parliament to pass a Lokpal law on corruption, transparency in the process of dealing with cases and the establishment of anti-corruption authorities on a state level. The government has granted some of these requests, however the initiative continues in the hope of establishing strong, independent corruption bodies as well as highlighting that corruption should be wiped out altogether.
More importantly, it has refocused public attention towards non-violent resistance, demonstrating that intimidation tactics and weapons are not needed when it comes to making a stand. Sometimes all you need is a sign and a street to protest on. In 2011, hundreds of men and women marched the streets of Delhi as part of SlutWalk, a global movement which aims to quash rhetoric that sexual violence against any woman is a result of the way she is dressed.
The digital age
The internet has swept in a new means of taking a stand. Independent activists have harnessed the unique word-of-mouth effect that is offered by blogs and social media to spread their message and build a community of likeminded people. Locally, initiatives such as the Pink Chaddi campaign and Bell Bajao have garnered immense support through clever uses of online platforms, while the internet has allowed signature seekers to garner support from far and wide for petitions.
In June this year, online “hacktivist” organization Anonymous India, called upon people via Facebook to take part in protests against government censorship of the internet. Activist hit the streets in sixteen cities, marching peacefully wearing masks and urging the government to overturn censorship bans on sites such as Torrent and Vimeo. While the organization’s usual method of hacking government websites to get their voice heard arguably falls outside the realms of a “peaceful protest”, their success at mobilizing people online and offline to rally peacefully is proof that even today the desire to raise concerns diplomatically is alive and well.
Violent attacks on women said to be engaging in immoral behavior are a form of protest on behalf of the attackers and this notion of using violent or physical means to make a point is as tired as it is frightening. Any “successful” outcome of a violent protest should not be taken as a given that it is the only way of getting things accomplished. History proves that brains outweigh brawn in the (peaceful) fight for social change. As the old saying goes, sometimes all it takes is a bright idea.